Apr 9, 2014 - Clear cutting, Climate change and the Making of a Small Town Tragedy by Matt Remle

On March 22nd 2014, an over waterlogged hillside collapsed triggering a massive mudslide above the North Fork of Stillaguamish River in the town of Oso, WA. The devastating mudslide, estimated to be over 1-square mile large, tore through the Stillaguamish River, decimated a portion of Highway 530 and destroyed over 40 homes. 30 people were killed and roughly 15 people remain missing.

President Obama has declared the area a major disaster zone and Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee described the mudslide as “a square mile of total devastation, everything within that path has been leveled. Not a stick is standing.”

WSDOT photo of Oso slide

News of the mudslide struck a personal chord having grown up in the small town of Arlington, WA located just 10-miles from Oso.  Most Oso residents attended school in Arlington, where I went to school.  Like most people growing up in a small town, we all knew several of the families directly impacted.  The mudslide and its impacts were heartbreaking.

Oso slide photo by: KOMO news

Impacts from Clear cutting

Starting in the late-1940’s the area around the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River had been subjected to regular rounds of clear cutting. Since then, the area, known as the Hazel slide area, has suffered at least 4 mudslides over the  decades.

The area had been subjected to so much clear cutting that the Tulalip tribes, located near Oso and the descendants of the original peoples of the region, intervened in the 1980’s in attempt to block future clear cutting of the area. The Tulalip tribes had expressed concern over clear cutting in the area for nearly the past half century due to its  negative impacts on the spawning grounds for salmon and steelhead

The Stillaguamish River is spawning grounds for both Chinook salmon and steelhead, both listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The mudslide has blocked their traditional spawning grounds and it is unclear what the returning fish will do. Steelhead typically swim upstream on the Stillaguamish between March and May; Chinook, between June and August.

The practice of clear cutting is largely believed to have played a significant role in the mudslide. Trees intercept and suck up rain water. Without trees, especially older larger trees, more water runs underground, where it can over saturate already unstable soil in landslide zones.  The other major factor in the massive mudslide is climate change.

Climate change

Climate change is here and the impacts from it are being felt and are real. A recent study on the impacts of climate change in the Northwest conducted by the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group (CIG), the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Forest Service state the Northwest will likely see:

“Changes in temperature and precipitation will continue to decrease snow pack, and will affect stream flow and water quality throughout the Pacific Northwest region. Warmer temperatures will result in more winter precipitation falling as rain rather than snow throughout much of the Pacific Northwest, particularly in mid-elevation basins where average winter temperatures are near freezing. This change will result in:

1. Less winter snow accumulation,
2. Higher winter streamflows,
3. Earlier spring snowmelt,
4. Earlier peak spring streamflow and lower summer streamflows in rivers that depend on snowmelt (most rivers in the Pacific Northwest)

The decline of the region’s snowpack is predicted to be greatest at low and middle elevations due to increases in air temperature and less precipitation falling as snow. The average decline in snowpack in the Cascade Mountains, for example, was about 25% over the last 40 to 70 years, with most of the decline due to the 2.5 degrees F increase in cool season air temperatures over that period. As a result, seasonal stream flow timing will likely shift significantly in sensitive watersheds. (Littell et-al., 2009)”

The increased rain due to climate change was felt throughout the Northwest region this past winter as the area smashed previous records for the wettest March (9.44 inches of rain) and February-March (15.55 inches of rain) stretchs on record.

The over saturated and clear cut lands gave out and lives were lost. Across the globe similar scenes of death, devastation and destruction are playing out due to the increased impacts of climate change. It is no longer a question of whether climate change is real, but rather what are we prepared to do to confront it.  The health and well being our next generations depend on the actions we do, or do not, take today.

Mitakuye oyasin, Wakinyan Waanatan (Matt Remle)

Last Real Indians